F-35 Enters Full-Rate Production

On Mar. 12, 2024, the Milestone Decision Authority, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, Dr. William A. LaPlante, approved the Milestone C / Full Rate Production (MSC/FRP) of the F-35 Lightning II aircraft (nearly 23 years after Lockheed Martin won the contract for the Joint Strike Fighter) with the signing of an Acquisition Decision Memorandum (ADM) after a meeting with the Defense Acquisition Board (DAB).

According to a Pentagon news release, the F-35 achieved this milestone after considering the results from the F-35 Combined Initial Operational Test and Evaluation and Live Fire Test and Evaluation Report, System Development and Demonstration exit criteria, statutory/regulatory documentation compliance, future production strategy, and draft acquisition program baseline details. Proceeding to MSC/FRP requires control of the manufacturing process, acceptable performance and reliability, and the establishment of adequate sustainment and support systems.

The DAB, which met on Mar. 7, 2024, was chaired by Dr. LaPlante, and is the department’s senior-level forum for critical decisions concerning acquisition programs at the Department of Defense.

“This is a major achievement for the F-35 Program,” LaPlante said. “This decision—backed by my colleagues in the Department—highlights to the Services, F-35 Cooperative Program Partners, and Foreign Military Sales customers that the F-35 is stable and agile, and that all statutory and regulatory requirements have been appropriately addressed. The F-35 Program is the premier system that drives interoperability with our allies and partners while contributing to the integrated deterrence component of our National Defense Strategy.”

F-35 full-rate production, a huge accomplishment

Full-rate production means the Joint Program Office can now negotiate multiyear contracts for the fighter.

Lockheed Martin rolls out first Belgian Air Force F-35A Lightning II

“I am very proud of our team, and this is a huge accomplishment!” said Lt. Gen. Mike Schmidt, Director and Program Executive Officer, F-35 Joint Program Office.

“The F-35 enterprise has made significant improvements over the last decade, and we will always be driven to continuously improve sustainability, interoperability, and lethality so warfighters have the capability needed to fight and win when called to do so. Moreover, the Program and our great people can now focus on the future of the F-35 instead of the past.”

In September 2023, a key gateway for MS C/FRP was achieved when F-35 Runs for Score in the Joint Simulation Environment (JSE) and initial trial validation were completed.

As reported by Air & Space Forces Magazine, Greg Ulmer, Lockheed executive vice president for aeronautics, recently forecast that the F-35 program will have a stable production rate goal of about 156 aircraft per year for at least the next five years.

The F-35A has been operational with the Air Force since 2016. The service continues to pursue a planned fleet of 1,763 aircraft.

Negotiations between the JPO and Lockheed Martin for production Lots 18 and 19 have been underway since last fall; Lot 20 is expected to be the first contract under which multiyear status can play a role. Under a multiyear contract, contractors can be assured of a longer run of production and make economic order quantities of materiel, reducing their costs and the cost to the government.

Lightning II deliveries on hold

“DOT&E conducted analysis of the results from Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOT&E) and Live Fire Test and Evaluation and delivered a comprehensive, combined report as required by statute to inform the Milestone C / Full Rate Production decision. DOT&E also provided a separate annex that assessed post-IOT&E Block 4 operational testing of the 30P06 and 30P07 software.” said Dr. Raymond D. O’Toole, Jr., Acting Director, Operational Test & Evaluation. “The Program is working to address DOT&E’s findings and recommendations contained in the report. One of DOT&E’s concerns is to continue to improve test infrastructure for support development and to ensure readiness to test of the upcoming Block 4 capabilities. This includes timely deliveries of the next iterations of F-35-In-A-Box for integration into the JSE.”

F-35A print
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-35A Lightning II 56th OG, 61st FS, LF/12-5050 / 2014

Achieving MSC/FRP is important to the program, and it helps to validate the aircraft’s capabilities for present and future partners of the F-35 enterprise.

To date, over 990 F-35 aircraft have been delivered to the US Services, F-35 Cooperative Program Partners, and Foreign Military Sales customers.

As Air & Space Forces Magazine says, ironically, the full-rate announcement comes as F-35 deliveries are on hold pending testing of the Tech Refresh 3 hardware and software, on which the Block 4 upgrade depends. Lockheed is storing about 70 completed F-35s until that testing concludes—expected in mid-to-late summer—but production continues.

The F-35 Lightning II

The F-35 is designed to replace aging fighter inventories including US Air Force F-16s and A-10s, US Navy F/A-18s, US Marine Corps AV-8B Harriers and F/A-18s, and U.K. Harrier GR.7s and Sea Harriers. With stealth and a host of next-generation technologies, the F-35 will be far and away the world’s most advanced multi-role fighter. There exists an aging fleet of tactical aircraft worldwide. The F-35 is intended to solve that problem.

On Oct. 26, 2001, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Edward C. “Pete” Aldridge Jr. announced the decision to proceed with the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program. This approval advanced the program to the System Development and Demonstration (SDD) phase. The Secretary of the Air Force James G. Roche announced the selection of Lockheed Martin teamed with Northrop Grumman and BAE to develop and then produce the JSF aircraft.

The F-35 offers multi-mission capability, including strategic attack, suppression/destruction of enemy air defenses (SEAD/DEAD), offensive/defensive counter air, anti-surface warfare, strike coordination and reconnaissance, and close air support. It brings stealth, sensor fusion, and interoperability to enable access in contested environments and enhances situational awareness.

F-35
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Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Codie Trimble / U.S. Air Force and Lockheed Martin